William H. Gass
Interview By Paul Maliszewski, Photos By Frank Di Piazza
William H. Gass is the author of two well-wrought novels, Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, two collections of stories, Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas and the essential In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and a curious book answering to the name of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. He has also written eight collections of nonfiction, including, most recently, Tests of Time and A Temple of Texts.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gass played one part in a wide-ranging debate with John Gardner, the novelist and author of On Moral Fiction. Their fundamental disagreement was not, as it is often portrayed, an argument between a realist (Gardner) and an experimenter (Gass), or even a premodern storyteller and a postmodern player of elaborate word games. It was an examination into the nature of art, theirs and everybody else’s. Gardner maintained that writers should “try to find out, by honest thought, moment by moment, psychological response by psychological response, what it is that I can affirm as true and good.” His moral fiction, in this way, could be “helpful to people” and make “it possible for individuals to live in society.” While Gass sympathized with Gardner’s well-intentioned aims, he thought them misplaced, arguing that novels were unreliable vehicles if what a writer wanted was to deliver instructions on how best to live one’s life. In 1978, at a literary conference in Cincinnati that they both attended, Gardner said, “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” Gass replied, “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”
Years later, in Syracuse, in the fog of my mid-1990s, I got to meet Gass when he came to read at the university. I’d been a student there but managed somehow to complete my studies a few years before. So I was, in the unfortunate manner of graduate students, still just hanging around, working then as a reporter or an editor or something. My friend James and I spoke to Gass before his reading. James asked him about Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, a book I’d never heard of but made a silent note to read. Mostly I just listened. I didn’t know what to say, or ask. Later, at a reception held in a student’s apartment, Gass sat in an easy chair and spoke to students who—I remember this vividly—knelt by his side, the better to hear him over the noise of the party. They knelt not like parishioners in some bookish church but on one bended knee, like football players listening to their coach. I liked that. I liked it very much. I talked to my friend, and we talked to the professor, Mary Caponegro, who invited Gass to speak. Mary encouraged us to go talk to the man. She, after all, wasn’t going anywhere, but he’d be leaving the next morning. We stayed with Mary. Gass was busy. What would be the point of butting in? And what, anyway, could one say? It was a fine evening. If I sound awed a little, or a lot, I was. I was speechless then, and still am.
Vice recently spoke with Gass over the telephone. He was at his home, in St. Louis.
Vice: I saw that you participated this summer in a reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. How did that go?
William Gass: Well, it was quite popular, as a matter of fact. I mean there were a couple hundred people who ended up reading. We had more people who wanted to read than there was Ovid.
Is there something about hearing works read aloud that’s key to our appreciating them?
Oh, yes. First, it slows it down. People were sitting there with text also and following, and so they could start measuring interpretation in the voice that they’re hearing with their own. And when that voice is reading with some sense and skill, then it helps the reader a great deal.
When you write, do you keep in mind the sounds words make?
Yes, I mumble. I sit at the typewriter and talk to it, and it talks to me, and I have to hear everything over and over before I, you know, let go of it.
We read aloud to children to teach and entertain them, and maybe we spend time in secondary school taking turns reading some poem or story. But as we grow older we read aloud a lot less; we read a line that we really like to a friend, but that’s really the exception. Reading is mostly silent.
It used to be common in this country, when people read in their own homes from the Bible, and often there was only one person who knew how to read. And it may come along that most people won’t know how to read.
As a culture, are we missing out on something, not having a strong oral tradition?
Oh, yes. You gain things with change and you lose things; it’s just a part of the scheme of things. But the kind of phenomenon whereby Flaubert finishes his book and he gets his friends and he reads them the whole damn book, that involves a sense of leisure and time to spend on creating the book, savoring it and so forth, that we just don’t have. And we can’t expect people to have. There’s just no room in most of our lives for that kind of slow appreciation. People eat too fast, too.
You recorded an unabridged version of The Tunnel. Do you think listening to your voice brings out aspects of the novel that remain more submerged in the print-and-ink book?
Well, I don’t know that they’re terribly submerged, but people just don’t read that way. So yeah, it should bring out a lot of things, some rhythms, some emphasis on sound patterns and so on. I tried to avoid the theatricality. I just wanted the words to do the work, but nevertheless there’s pacing and rhythm and emphasis and so on and so forth that are a part of the interpretation of the text.
I would think translating your books would be tough, because the sound of your language in English is so important. Do you take a close interest in translation?
I take an interest, but I don’t override or govern it. I have had in French two people—Christophe Claro did The Tunnel and Marc Chénetier did Cartesian Sonata, which is just coming out there, as well as In the Heart of the Heart of the Country—and they’re just superb translators whose English is as good as anybody’s, and who are very smart. And so once in a while they’ll have a question for me, but not much. As for the other translations, I have no idea. You know, I can’t read Romanian. I have no idea what these books are. The Japanese translated some things, and Lord knows what they are.
I recently came across some photographs taken of you, in your home, among all your books. How many books do you have now?
Oh, it’s still around 20,000.
So did you luck into a house with built-in units, or did you make all that shelving?
No, I had to make the shelves myself when we moved in. I wanted them freestanding too, because I didn’t want to harm the walls. This was back in the day when I could aim a hammer at a nail. I’m proud of the fact that those shelves still haven’t bowed.
What kind of wood did you use?
It was just second-class pine.
How have you organized your books?
Well, I had a grand organization for the English and American literature section. I started with authors A through Z. And then I wanted to get fancy and arrange the books in the order of their publication so by a glance I could sort of get a bibliography of the work. After a while I lost my zeal for that project.
Can you always find what you’re looking for?
Not always, but quite often. It’s like remembering a passage in a book, and you vaguely remember it was on the lower left-hand corner. I have that same memory for the book; someplace it’s nestled. And usually I’m right.
How much of the reading you do is rereading?
Well, it’s not so much rereading, really. When I’m reading it’s often new things, but I’m not reading them for pleasure. That’s been long ago since I did that. In the old days I read to know what I was going to say about it in class or write about it somewhere. And I’m still doing a few pieces for Harper’s so I had to read a lot of Knut Hamsun recently, and you’re reading and rereading because you’re checking on things and trying to figure out, in this case, why you hate this stuff.
So are there any books that you reread every few years or any books that you take down off the shelves periodically to read a passage from?
Well, yes, but usually I’m hunting for a quotation or an example. And then of course I go to my favorites, to James and people like that, or I go to Rilke or, you know, I hunt through Hölderlin. But unless I am on business, I don’t revisit a lot, I’m afraid.
Borges said, “First and foremost I think of myself as a reader.” Does that seem true to you, personally?
I was when I was young. I don’t think what I do now is reading. I’m either skimming through and gutting a book, which isn’t reading, or I’m jumping up and down on a page, and that isn’t reading either. I miss reading, actually, but when I was younger I just devoured books and enjoyed them and then went on to the next one and was insatiable. All of us who are in this business are like that at some point. And then a time comes when you’re studying instead.
What do you mean by jump up and down on a page?
Well, you start to examine everything, see how it was done. This is where James is so marvelous. He’s doing everything right almost all the time. You think you’re going to catch him out in something, and it happens rarely. And so any pressure you put on the text with certain writers, like Joyce or Proust or Musil or Kafka or James—you know those people, the pressure, they respond. The text really starts to breathe more deeply. And that’s exciting, but it’s more like mining for gold. I mean it’s not reading along, so there’s no narrative flow. It’s excavation.
One of the books you reviewed for Harper’s was Malcolm Lowry’s The Voyage That Never Ends. Much of what’s included is unfinished. Lowry, you write, imagined his Voyage would span as many as 11 volumes. What do you think about publishing unfinished stuff?
I wouldn’t do it myself. Now, if it’s somebody else, then I want everything I can get my hands on, because I want to see his juvenilia. There was a time when I was studying Conrad that way, moving from the notebooks to places where we had evidence of how he changed things and so forth. So every bit of information I could get, I wanted. So I’m happy when people publish unfinished work in terms of understanding the work that got finished, but of course one has to realize that it’s unfinished and not make the same judgments that you would with a finished product.
Are you looking forward, then, to the publication of Nabokov’s last novel?
Yes, I am. And I was happy when they published some stuff of Gaddis’s, even though it’s not up to his standard, just because every bit of information is helpful if one just gives it the right and appropriate weight.
Manuscripts often endure great trials before reaching us. They’re lost, they’re locked away or left undiscovered. They’re destroyed in fires. The manuscript for your first novel was stolen. That must have been devastating.
Oh, yeah. I thought I had lost a priceless work. The real shock was the realization that in fact the work I lost wasn’t priceless after all. It wasn’t very good.
In having to rewrite it, you improved it.
Saved it, I think. I mean it was pretty wretched.
The manuscript was stolen out of your car, right?
Stolen off my desk at Purdue. I was working on the last chapter, and I had carried it to the office as I regularly did, to work on it and peck away at it at odd moments. And it disappeared, and I never saw it again.
Did the police investigate?
They ran ads for information. It was hopeless, of course, but they did do that. They didn’t appreciate, you know, your work being taken out of your office. They didn’t care for that.
Do you know who was responsible?
Oh, yes. I immediately sensed who had done it, but I couldn’t prove it.
A jealous colleague?
Yeah, he was a colleague, not in the philosophy department, where I taught, but in the English department. He later proved to be a guy who went from school to school, stealing or appropriating manuscripts, and publishing a number of them.
As his own?
As his own. There was one on Nathanael West printed in Accent, and he published a piece of mine—he changed some things—on Katherine Anne Porter for the Southwest Review. It still gets cited now and then as his. I have to smile.
Who was this guy?
His name was Edward Schwartz. He disappeared, possibly into South America. He did his dissertation on Katherine Anne Porter from—guess—Syracuse. He was a smart guy, smart enough to do the work himself.
But he stole his way across America. He pretended to be editing an anthology, would love to have an essay on this or that writer from such a one as you were. Published it with a few changes in a “remote” journal under his name. Took a job at another university after a year or so. Tried to publish pieces of Omensetter’s Luck renamed Hopewell.
These were recognized. That’s when he lit out for Arizona.
That’s amazing. So bald-faced, too.
In your Lowry review I was struck by the passage where you describe his style: his attention to the “internal tussles between our multiple selves,” his insistence on treating art and ideas and dreams “with the same seriousness… as acts, emotions, sights, and scenes,” his way of dropping other texts into his work, and his indifference to his audience. A person could say much the same of your writing. Do you see some overlap between your work and his? Is there recognition and sympathy?
Oh, yeah, I think so. What I note most completely is we had a hell of a time doing it. We didn’t do it easily. I’m not inclined to put my life into my work the way he did. I’m quite the opposite. You’re always aware of the Lowry in the book. If you want to think you’re aware of me in the book, you got the wrong person, it’s almost certain. So I’m quite different from him in certain respects, but in others it’s a matter of trying to make too much of the text glow, to fill it too full of energy, to refuse to admit that a great deal of reality is sufficiently banal to scoot past it, and I don’t want anybody scooting past. But then I read it and I think, “Oh, yeah—I’d scoot past that!” and I have to go and do something about it. Lowry was constantly doing that, but he would also feel he had to go out and do something with his life that would correct or make more interesting what he had done previously with it. It’s an amazing kind of thing, where you’re working and your writing is reflecting how you’ve, say, suffered, to go out and suffer some in order to get the next chapter. It’s not my mode.
In that same passage you write that audiences “want their reality as customized as their cars” and “as equipped with the same lies as their lives,” so that “a ride over even the bumpiest pavement” is made smooth. Do people really prefer the smooth-going stuff or is that just an assumption made in the marketplace, in the making and selling of books?
Well, I think it’s there in both ways. I think the editors and publishers want the smooth read and the so-called page turner—the faster you turn the page, the better, so that there’s a great deal of horizontal propulsion of the narrative through the pages. Anything that stops the reader from the imaginary world that the pages are trying to create and draws them away or interferes with that is like having dirt on the window. You’ve got to get rid of it, because you’re looking at dirt and you don’t want to do that. I don’t care so much what you see on the other side of the window. I just want you to look at the window and enjoy the dirt while it’s still there.
Is this idea of the smooth ride or the dirt on the window at the heart of your argument with John Gardner?
Yes, I think it is. It’s of course a rephrasing of an old example from Ortega y Gasset, where he says that contemporary—or, in his day, modern—art is retreating from the object to the medium through which the object is perceived. I think he was right about that. I think, ideally, what we’ll do is what James did, and that is to get it all. Have it all. If you focus on the world outside, you’ve got one, and if you don’t, you’ve still got plenty of other things to think about too. And then there are the connections, because the world outside for James—the external world that he’s creating—is nothing but a series of social signs and meanings. It’s another text. And so if one is trying really for the best possible greedy amalgamation, you want both things.
Are the differences between literary stylists like yourself and the authors Gardner called writers of moral fiction still being contested?
Oh, it’s always, and it will return. It has been going on as long as literature has, and it will, I suppose, go on. Of course there’s some doubt whether literature will go on at all, but there are a number of issues in aesthetics which keep right on going. We’ll see a return to standard realism. This word “realism” is, of course, applied to worlds that are totally imaginary; they’re not real at all. If the people really got the real world, they would run in terror. But those preferences—feeling that a character is real, more real than your friend next door, etc. etc.—those feelings are not going to be banished. We still want to look at a portrait in the gallery, and some people want to know who it’s a portrait of.
While other people are content to look at the brushstrokes.
Right. Wish he had not painted a somebody but did a Pollock or something.
Can you talk about the importance of metaphor in your work?
Well, it’s very complicated because metaphors are everything for me. They’re everything from turns of phrase up to structural conditions. The relationship between a work of fiction and the world, to go back to what we were just talking about, is itself hugely metaphorical. And the metaphor has a transformatory power. It rearranges the meanings that are engaged in making the metaphor, and it usually means that it will rearrange both terms involved in simple metaphors, if it’s just a two-term thing, and the relationships themselves so that something new comes out of it.
The problem becomes one of other aspects: How long is the metaphor to be sustained? If I say “King Richard is a lion” on page 1, is he still growling on page 50? What is the scope, in other words, of the image? And some images—you can see this in Shakespeare—some images are just little flicks, a passing glimpse, and we drop them pretty quickly. Others are structural principles. Metaphors will swallow metaphors and enlarge themselves.
It’s a very complex situation, and metaphors are not without their cognitive power. They’re very much like scientific models, where you are in effect saying, “Let light travel in straight lines.” We know light is also waves and stuff, but if we let it, then we have a way of representing light which enables us to calculate the height of the church steeple from shadows on the ground. So we may have a model that works within a certain scope, but then there’s a point at which the rectilinear propagation of light is no longer a satisfactory notion, and we have to go to a wave theory. Well, this is what metaphors do all the time, and it’s an incredible enrichment of a text. They can be very sneaky. Beckett, for example, is loaded with them, but they’re submerged and broken up.
Metaphors also indicate the power that’s important in all the arts, and that is that formal properties are relational, not terminal. They’re not terms, but they’re connections between terms, and that’s what you have to worry about as an artist. And that’s what a metaphor is busy doing.
What are sneaky metaphors?
Oh, well, let’s say the handbag in [Beckett’s] Happy Days. The handbag is referred to literally all the time—she has a handbag—but suddenly it’s not a handbag, it’s the world of commodity. This is a very obvious case, but there are many of them. I mean when he gets a character on a bicycle, he’s riding Descartes off. There’s plenty going on underneath.
I noted a couple of metaphors while rereading your Harper’s piece about Katherine Anne Porter. In one, you describe her life history as “a biographer’s nightmare, full of false connections and alleged events, and blank about substantial passages of time, as if they had happened during intermission and were never a part of the play.” Later you describe young Porter being “captivated by the ubiquitous voices of Southern storytellers, leaning back in stiff chairs against the hardware store’s porch wall, shaded, certainly, from the sun, a length of straw caught like a savory cliché between tongue and teeth.” Could you talk about how those metaphors work?
Well, the second one is a cliché. It’s supposed to be as dead as a doornail, and indeed I used another one. It’s a standard image with which she likes to play of the Southern story mythologizing bit. It might happen now and then, but would be rare. I mean, it’s just a made-up tradition. Whereas the earlier metaphor is simply based on a matter of fact: There are plays, and there are intermissions, and there’s no question about the fact of these things. That metaphor is based on a relationship to ordinary life, whereas the other is based on a relationship to ordinary life mythologized.
One last metaphor. This one’s from the first sentence of The Confidence-Man. Melville writes, “At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the water-side in the city of St. Louis.” That “suddenly as Manco Capac” is an odd metaphor. It takes the relatively ordinary, a man appearing in St. Louis, and renders him strange, almost unintelligible. It obscures more than it reveals, to the point that the references need to be footnoted. So how does this metaphor operate?
Well, there’s a lot going on there. There’s a mix that James is fond of. Every word has a social position in the society of language, and every word has its place in that society, and so if suddenly certain words located in the lowest strata appear in polite conversation, there’s shock. Similarly, if suddenly, in an ordinary opening like this one, I drop in some really esoteric term, I’m playing with this structure of language. You know, you’re dealing with a confidence man, on April Fools’ Day, so you have to mistrust everything.
But you’d have to go and see exactly what that term is now saying about its ability to appear there. It’s like suddenly a peacock appears on your suburban front lawn. “What the hell is it doing there?” So there’s a story to be told about that word, which of course then usurps the opening. I mean, it’s sitting there, and you know darn well Melville knows what he’s doing, so you have to find out what he’s doing. I’d have to go back and start poking about it, but it’s very intriguing, though; I’d forgotten about that one.
In the Porter review you offer a defense of literary style, saying most critics treat style as separate from substance. “It’s wrapping paper and ribbon,” you write, “scented tag and loving inscription.” Is literary style under fire today or, at the very least, not well understood?
Well, it’s in the way. We’re in a democracy now of culture as well as everything else, Everybody’s a writer and everybody is a reader. And so there’s going to be a lot of simpleminded writing for simpleminded readers. Maybe in time that will change and quality will emerge, but at the moment, nobody wants that. They want simplicity and ease and brevity to the point of almost not being able to figure out what’s there, it’s so short. It’s just stenography. A complex thought is just not possible in most contexts. So that is certainly an enemy of any serious work. The question is how much damage it will do over years, or whether people will come out of this nonsense or not. I just don’t know. And at my age, I don’t care.
You often review author biographies for Harper’s, but you seem to question the underlying assumptions of these books. In your review of the two-volume biography of Henry James, you ask, “What are the data that determine any person’s life? Of the things we desire, do, see, think, or feel, what should be discarded like spoiled paper, and what should be retained? How shall the residue be weighed?” Are biographies ultimately distractions from the work?
Well, I don’t find them distractions. I am often fond of the tension between the nature of the author and the texts that that author creates. I think that’s a fascinating subject. It raises such enormous problems for a biographer, who is faced with riches, because biographers have to work with what their subject has done in the world. If all the subject did was build sand castles, they wouldn’t have much to write their stuff from. So with a writer, as opposed, let’s say, to a scientist, there’d still be a lot of data around.
But with a writer you’ve got a whole collected works sitting there. This person has written this—and what the hell are you going to do with it? It’s fun to see the biographer try to come to grips with this, because the temptation of writers to falsify their lives while they are writing as if about them in fiction is enormous. You can’t trust the authors at all, so you have to be able to disengage what they say and find other sorts of evidence. And then you have always the question that you don’t have necessarily with a work of fiction: Why are you writing about this person? What’s important about them?
What’s important about them is their novels, but we can’t trust the novels, so we won’t talk about them in the book. So it’s back and forth, and it makes for a nice issue. Some people are better at doing this than others. Some authors are more amenable to biography than others. Finally the biographer may create an image of a person—Byron, say—where we say, “I don’t care. Byron is now the Byron of this biography, and the rascal that we love, and will be this fictional figure that we will venerate.” I’m not against biography. I love to see them because they are all not a problem sitting there.
One of the criticisms of biographies that crop up in reviews is that the writer didn’t treat the work and instead went off and paid particular attention to the letters, say, or to the legal documents produced in divorces—all the subsidiary material of a life.
And buried the person in such a rain of data—a huge book—that there’s no longer any sense of what was important in this life. Anything that you could get into the life is important to some biographers, and so their books just get unwieldy huge. Often the best biographies are the pithy summation by somebody who understands the author and the work very well and then simply writes a book that captures the rhythms of this individual’s existence.
Still, there does seem to be curiosity about writers’ lives. I told a friend I was going to interview you, and he said I should ask what a typical meal is for William Gass. I asked him if he was being serious, because I can’t always tell, you know, and he said, “Actual writing is just a part of a writer’s life. I like hearing about the other parts that go into it.”
You want to hear about that?
Well, I just wondered what your thoughts were.
Conrad had a very interesting life, even if he hadn’t written anything. Most writers’ lives are so banal—and mine is certainly that way—that I can’t imagine why you would want to bother. I think I’m safe from this, but that’s because what I did with my life when I wasn’t writing was teaching, and everybody knows that’s boring. But if I had been a mountain climber or a racing-car enthusiast or a notorious adulterer, then I might have a life worth talking about.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished a small book with a friend of mine, Michael Eastman, on art and abstraction, with his magnificent photographs and my text. I’m going to be getting another collection of essays together—you know, one of these dreary accumulation things. It may even be two volumes, one not about literature but about music or painting or something else, travel and so forth. And then I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel. I’ve also got under way a small book, which is really close to my heart, on baroque prose. So it’s in the 17th century, having fun—boy, is it great! John Donne’s sermons and things.
When do you think you’ll complete the novel, or do you not like to make predictions?
Well, I always say something and then it never is true. But I’d better get it done soon; I certainly hope by spring I’ll be finished.